J. Richard Middleton (Northeastern Seminary): 30 OT/HB Scholars to Read and Follow

Here is a blog interview that New Testament Professor Nijay Gupta did with me last year for part of a series he was posting on Old Testament scholars.

NOVEMBER 9, 2020 BY NIJAY GUPTA

Richard Middleton, Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College

Why do you love teaching and researching about the OT/HB?

I find the Old Testament to be rich, complex, and textured—in its literature, its theology, and its earthy spirituality. The literature is so varied (from creation texts to prayers of lament, from wisdom treatises to narratives about the ancestors of Israel and the rise and fall of the monarchy), it’s impossible to get bored with it. One of the great challenges for those who teach the Old Testament is that it is impossible to “master” it. You develop various areas of expertise, but there is always so much more that you have to learn.

The earthiness of the Old Testament is also a great antidote to some of the otherworldly spirituality that has become embedded in the history of the church. Since the Old Testament was the Scripture of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, it was the story and symbolic world in terms of which they mapped their lives and God’s plan of redemption for the ages. This means that it is essential for us to understand the worldview of the Old Testament, since it shapes the New Testament in a fundamental way. So my study of the Old Testament has led me to become a better reader of the New Testament.

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

I think I have two big ideas, or at least two emphases, that I hope I have been able to communicate in my teaching and writing. When I started teaching at Northeastern Seminary, the Dean suggested I take the title Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, since these were my twin emphases.

The first emphasis that I want to communicate is the big picture, the story of the Bible from creation to eschaton, which is the story that ought to make sense of our lives (the trouble is that many in the church have “lost the plot”). So the big picture can help reorient the church to its vocation (the missio Dei), how it is called to contribute to the unfolding of God’s purposes for the world God loves. For me, this has meant a focus (initially, at least) on creation texts, whether in Genesis, the Psalms, Job, or the prophetic literature. Creation is the founding moment of the biblical story and studying these texts helps us see God’s original intentions for humanity and the world, which have something to say about the telos or goal of salvation.

The other big idea that I want to communicate (and model) is that careful reading of the biblical text yields wonderful theological and ethical results. I’ve tried to show precisely that in exegesis courses that I teach on Genesis, Samuel, Job, and the Psalms. This means reading with an inquiring mind, wondering why the text says what it does, and why it says it in the way that it does. It means bringing the entirety of who we are to the study of the Bible, including our hopes, our doubts, our assumptions, our questions, and being willing to challenge the text—so long as we are willing to be challenged in response. The Bible is not a safe book; it can radically change us.

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

My first academic hero is Walter Brueggemann. Although I haven’t always agreed with Brueggemann (I’ve written an article critical of his creation theology, and he graciously accepted my critiques), his attempt to bridge the gap from the ancient biblical text to the contemporary world has inspired me to try and do the same. He particularly opened up to me the riches of the prophetic literature and the Psalms.

What books were formative for you when you were a student? Why were they so important and shaping?

When I was an undergraduate theological student, I was profoundly affected by George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth. In that book Ladd tried to sketch the Synoptic pattern, the Johannine pattern, the Pauline pattern, and also to address the Old Testament pattern that undergirded the New Testament. Whether or not I would fully agree with his analysis of the New Testament today, his attempt to show both diversity and coherence in the New Testament text was very helpful. But most helpful of all was Ladd’s chapter called “The Background of the Pattern: Greek or Hebrew?” where he did detailed textual study of Plato, Philo, and the Old Testament to address whether the Old Testament pattern was human ascent from the world to God or God’s descent from heaven to earthly existence.

When I was a graduate theological student, it was Brueggemann’s books that deeply impacted me—first The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, then The Prophetic Imagination. I still assign them in courses.

Read Middleton’s Work

The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1

A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology

If you ran into me at SBL, and you didn’t want to talk about OT/HB studies, what would you want to talk about?

I would probably talk about music—especially reggae (both from my home country and “world reggae”) and the music of Bruce Cockburn and Leonard Cohen.

What is a research/writing project you are working on right now that you are excited about?

I am now finishing the final chapter of a book on the Aqedah (Genesis 22) for Baker Academic. It’s called: Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God. It’s a theology of prayer for a time of suffering, developed through interaction with biblical texts (the only way I know how to do theology).

Update: Abraham’s Silence is now complete (published November 2021). For information, see the Baker website.

For those interested, there is a recent review of Abraham’s Silence, called “Revisiting the Sacrifice of Isaac.”

Was Abraham a Good Example? (Scot McKnight’s Blog Post on Abraham’s Silence)

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight wrote a blog post on my book Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Baker Academic, 2021). The post doesn’t cover the entire argument of the book; it focuses on the concluding section that addresses the Aqedah or Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). The blog was posted this morning.

Scot also interviewed me about Abraham’s Silence for his Kingdom Roots podcast; we covered a bit more of the book in the interview, including my motivation for writing it and why lament or protest prayer is important in the Bible and the Christian life. I’ll post a notification when the podcast is available.

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“Was Abraham a Good Example?”

Scot McKnight — February 3, 2022

Gen. 22:1   After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.

The challenge is for the reader and can be asked in a question:

Why the silence? (In those italicized words.)

 Why no protest?

 Protesting and lamenting sin and injustice are thoroughly biblical. Why the silence?

Picture Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binding_of_Isaac#/media/File:Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi).jpg

So many gaps in Genesis 22. So many questions. Our imaginations are stimulated to the highest levels in reading this chapter. Intentionally so.

Long ago I learned from reading Meir Sternberg and Robert Alter to ask about the textual gaps in such texts, and J. Richard Middleton explores all the gaps in Abraham’s Silence.

The details are so many that only a sketch can be given here. What I want to do is give you the big ideas of what Middleton thinks of the silence of Abraham.

In this text it is “God” (Elohim) not YHWH who tested Abraham. This is unusual, and could be a distancing expression. A messenger of YHWH, however, stops the sacrificial act (cf. Gen 22:1, 11). Why the change?

Isaac’s relationship to Abraham, or vice versa, is plumbed at length in this book: in essence, he thinks their relationship is dysfunctional as measured by the textual details. They do not talk on the way there; and Isaac all but disappears after this event; he does not come down the mountain and does not accompany Abraham back. Isaac’s not given a separable story in Genesis that we do find with Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. Middleton suggests Abraham favored Ishmael over Isaac; he thinks Isaac picks up the idea that God is the One to be feared (all this comes from his careful reading of the text). And “whom you love” he thinks could be translated “You love him, don’t you?”

Perhaps most provocatively, Middleton thinks God is testing Abraham about whether he loves this special son Isaac.

Is Abraham’s silence exemplary?

Abraham’s narrative arc in Genesis: What view of God did Abraham have? In Genesis 18 Abraham whittles it down to 10 survivors but Middleton thinks he does this in a way that does not plumb the depth of God’s mercy, love, and grace.

Middleton sees problems in the traditional reading: (1) How is this a model for commitment? (2) Why did Abraham need to happen? There is no clear evidence of a special relationship of Abraham and Isaac.

Middleton thinks Abraham is being given an opportunity to prove his love for his son. He could have spoken up but he is silent. Then Isaac all but disappears. Even more, Abraham is being tested about his perception of God’s own character. Isaac ups the ante from Lot to Abraham’s own son. Abraham is silent.

Isaac learns not that God is a God of grace and mercy but one to be feared. Notice “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac” (31:42).  Isaac is distanced from his father from this point on; Sarah, too, is never close to Abraham – perhaps not even living with him – from this point on.  It is a “broken family.” It was not Abraham who stopped the knife but an angel sent by the covenant God.

A big challenge to Middleton’s view are the words of the angel that seem to confirm Abraham as exemplary (not to ignore the positive view of Abraham’s Aqedah in much of Judaism and the NT). He probes how to see these words.

“By myself I have sworn”: God steps in because Abraham’s response was not as complete as it could have been. He thinks the ram was behind Abraham and, quite provocatively, he is not convinced Abraham had embraced the idea of God providing a ram instead of his son.

A sketch, for sure, without all the details, but you can get the big ideas from the above.

Middleton thinks Abraham did not in fact pass the test of Genesis 22. He could have protested for his son and his love for his son; he could have interceded; he could have had a more robust faith in God’s provision; he thinks he “just barely passed the test” of God’s character.

https://scotmcknight.substack.com/p/was-abraham-a-good-example

A Trip to the Holy Land Is Coming (December 2022)

I visited the Holy Land for the first time in 2018. It was a transformative experience.

By the second day (at Caesarea Maritima [see picture below]), I was convinced I would be back.

The trip was sponsored by the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies (JCBS), and our teacher was Monte Luker (current Academic Dean of JCBS).

Even before the trip was over, Monte and I began discussing the possibility of co-leading a trip for Northeastern Seminary (where I am a faculty member). After returning to the USA, we began planning in earnest.

The itinerary was set by the end of 2019 and we had a PDF brochure with all the details finalized early in 2020, ready to do the trip after Christmas of that year.

But then COVID hit. So the trip had to be canceled.

New Trip to the Holy Land

Well, a new trip is in the works. It’s going to happen right after Christmas 2022.

Our dates will most likely be December 29, 2022 through January 11, 2023. Those dates are not set in stone yet (they may shift by a day or two), but it will be a fourteen-day trip (eleven days in Israel with three days for travel on both ends).

We will arrive in Tel Aviv (on the Mediterranean coast) and head north to Galilee to begin our tour through the Holy Land. We’ll visit sites like Caesarea Philippi (where Peter confessed that Jesus was Messiah), Jeroboam’s temple at Dan (where he built the golden calf statues), and work our way down south to Masada (with a free day at the En Gedi resort at the Dead Sea) and Beersheba in the Negev (where Abraham lived). We’ll spend our last days in Jerusalem before flying home.

Along the way, we will learn about the importance of the various archeological and pilgrimage sites, reflect on their relation to events in the Bible, and have time to think about the significance of what we are seeing and learning for our own lives.

You will also have the opportunity to take communion on the Mount of Beatitudes and to renew your baptismal vows at the Jordan River, where John baptized Jesus.

Approximate Cost of the Holy Land Trip

The exact cost of the trip is still being worked out, but is expected to be $4,500-$5,000 per person. This covers airfare from Rochester, NY, all transportation within Israel, entrance fees to all sites we visit, and all hotel stays and meals (except for lunch, which we purchase on the road).

Anyone traveling from a different city will have a slightly different cost. But it will be comparable.

All the logistics (including air travel) will be organized by Educational Opportunities, a group that has a great deal of experience in planning such trips.

Here is a short video from Educational Opportunities about visiting the Holy Land: https://vimeo.com/543713454?ref=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR2672EIrHK6QomJcZO5dI8Usxoue9mqKPLA-ZfVRoh03g7EaQj4FK2PMIQ

The Trip Leaders

Because Monte Luker was already booked for another Holy Land trip after Christmas 2022, our teacher from the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies will be Bobby Morris, a Lutheran pastor and adjunct professor in Hebrew and Old Testament, who has led numerous such trips. Bobby will be the official teacher for the trip and I will be the host and co-teacher.

Current Interest in the Trip

Once the itinerary is set, a PDF brochure will be produced and online registration will be available. It’s a first-come, first-served situation. The absolute maximum is fifty participants, including Bobby Morris and myself (since that is what the tour bus can hold). However, we will probably cap registration before that, since having fifty on a tour of a site in the Holy Land slows everything down considerably. (If the demand requires it, and it looks like it might, we will probably have another trip the following year.)

Registration will be open to Northeastern Seminary students, along with alums and friends of the Seminary and of Roberts Wesleyan College (we are interpreting “friends” quite broadly to include anyone with a connection of any sort to the two schools or to faculty or staff of the schools).

Sixty-five people have already indicated some degree of interest in the trip.

Whether or not you have previously contacted me about the Holy Land trip, I am asking anyone interested to email me to confirm (or let me know of) your interest. That way, you will receive updates on the trip, including the PDF brochure when it is ready, notification about when registration begins (probably February or March 2022), and the online registration link (plus lots more information about what to expect on the trip).

If you don’t have my email address, just use the contact function on this website.

Topics on Location (BIB 735)

There will be an option for Seminary students to take a 3-credit Northeastern Seminary course in conjunction with the trip. Anyone interested in taking this course should contact me and I will fill you in on the details.